Celebrate With a Good Book

I’ve always done events in a big way. When I say “big way,” I mean the jaw-dropping, time-devouring, kill-yourself-off, massive-effort kind of way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to scale back a little whenever I get involved in a project, but the truth is: I love to throw myself whole-heartedly into making something fantastic and fun for other people, especially kids.

Birthdays around my house are usually a slice of over-the-top. I don’t go out and rent ponies or anything, but I always let the birthday girl choose a theme and plan the party around that theme. My favorites are the ones based on books. (I am a chronic bookaholic, after all!) It’s a great way to not only encourage kids to read, but to get them super excited about it! It brings the book to life!


fablehaven-05When my oldest daughter was ten, she became obsessed interested in Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. So, I put together a Fablehaven party for her. It was so much fun! I really enjoyed stretching my creative muscles.


Since her birthday is in the summer, we set up the Fablehaven “preserve” in the backyard, complete with fairies and a naiad pool.


There was a dragon cake (as you can see, I’m not so great in the cake department, but I try), and a bag of goodies, complete with “umite” wax and “milk” candy to give the kids magical sight.fablehaven-04


I loved the Fablehaven theme so much, that I also used it for a haunted house on Halloween. For that, I set up a black light fairy village that was being taken over by the shadow plague.fablehaven-01


We also used an animatronic “Fur Real” dog dressed in a costume to play the demon Graulas. He really moved, which was fun for guests!fablehaven-02

So, why not choose a book for your next party theme? I can totally see a Dreamkeeper party. (Hmmm. Maybe that’s my next Halloween haunt!) and a Ginnie West party, complete with horses and a rodeo, or Andy Smithson …. Okay, okay! I could go on and on. With all the tons of books right here on Emblazoners, you’re sure to find something fantastic that can spark a passion for reading in your kids!

Do You Remember….? It’s Still a Great Book!

sidewalk endsPublished in 1974, this longtime favorite has fallen in popularity as it’s aged. That’s so extremely unfortunate. I’m here to put it in front of a new generation of kids as well as remind parents, teachers, and homeschoolers who may have loved it long ago and forgotten all about it.

I’ve never been a fan of poetry, but some of these really tickled my funny bone when I was a child. I still have a few of them memorized. Some of you may remember…

I cannot go to school today,
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps…

Ring a bell? After the whole ridiculous rhyming retinue of ailments, Peggy Ann learns…well, if you haven’t read Sick, I’m not going to tell you. But her reaction is funny, and so, so what a kid would do. That’s the beauty of these quirky poems. They’re exactly what a kid would say and think and laugh about. Even forty years later, they’re still extremely kid-relatable. Here are a few more of my favorites:

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
Would not take the garbage out!

That’s the first line and the title of this kid-pleasing tale of laziness and its too-silly cost. I may have been known to quote parts of it to my children when the “prune pits, peach pits, orange peel…” and “gloppy bits of cold oatmeal” begin to pile up in our kitchen due to their negligence.

Another one we like to quote (in the car, because this always happens, though we’ve never waited weeks and then months) is Traffic Light:

The traffic light simply would not turn green
So the people stopped to wait
As the traffic rolled and the wind blew cold
And the hour grew dark and late.

Many of you know I homeschool some low readers. Well, it just so happens that one of the exercises recommended by reading experts to improve fluency is called “performance reading”. Basically, a child reads a selected text out loud over and over until they can read it with ease and expression. Practice makes perfect, even in reading. Shell Silverstein’s silly poems are THE PERFECT subject matter. Each Monday, my youngest has to pick a new poem, learn it, and perform it for me on Friday. (Sometimes it takes two weeks.) He loves it. First, the slow work of slogging through new text. Then the smiles as he pieces together the  humor. Next is usually an examination of the illustration, which always suits the poem so perfectly, because it was drawn by Mr. Silverstein himself. And finally, a proud, grinning performance as my son reads the text just as well as anyone could and anticipates the moment I share the punchline. It’s always fun. And it’s EDUCATIONAL! (Shhh…don’t tell him that.)

So would I recommend this dusty old book of poetry? You bet I would!!

And then what happened?

Writers love to write.

And it’s a good thing they do, because they certainly do a lot of it. In fact, they love to write so much (literally) that they seem to possess a burning desire to tell their reader everything they can think of in order to inform them of each fact and every tiny detail of the story, the setting, the characters, etc. There is also a tendency for new writers to keep everything they relate to the reader in chronological order, which is not always necessary for an intriguing story.

The writer’s generosity in sharing everything, and start at the very beginning, often includes immaterial information that has no bearing on the story and serves no real purpose other than increasing the word count of their manuscript. And many times, all of that meaningless and useless data occupies the high rent district of the beginning pages of the book.

But writers love to write. It’s what they do. And they can write until the cows come home before getting to that important place in the story where they finally reveal that single, magical, strange, unusual, and critical event that sets everything in motion. That’s usually the point where they capture the reader’s interest. Ideally, this event should be revealed sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, in some cases that incident is located at a point in the story that lies a bit beyond the reader’s patience. Placing this most important event too far into the story can be cause for the reader to close the book and look for something else—something that doesn’t drone on and on while meandering aimlessly in a circuitous route toward something (hopefully) more interesting.

Here’s a short video that gives an example of how this concept changed my story and gave it a more interesting opening…

Naturally, some backstory is important to your plot. However, it is rarely—if ever—the most important aspect of the story, and it doesn’t need to occupy the first few pages of the narrative. More important than telling everything that’s happened so far in the main character’s life is to grab the reader’s attention from the outset. If you can do that with a narrative hook in the first few paragraphs—or better yet, in the first sentence—you can lock your reader in for another 50 or 60 pages while they read on with great interest in learning what happens next.

Providing them with a situation that places a question in their mind keeps them reading until they discover the answer. That gives you, as the writer of this epic, some breathing room that you can use to weave in the important parts of your backstory so the reader can become intimately more familiar with your characters as the events unfold. This way, you can let the plot play out while your eager reader anxiously turns the pages.

Here’s a quick and simple exercise you can use to evaluate your own work. First, take a few minutes to read the opening of your current WIP or a finished manuscript that you’ve had no success in placing with an agent or a publisher. Then ask yourself the following: Does the first sentence get my attention and make me want to read more? If not, does the first paragraph grab you?

If you answered negatively to both of those questions, just how far into your story does that situation-changing event take place? If it’s over a few hundred words, you may need to do a little rearranging. A casual reader, especially a middle grade reader, isn’t going to read much further than the first couple of paragraphs before they decide if this is a book they want to spend time with.

The most important lesson to be learned here is that it is critical to get the interesting bits up front so your reader can discover them early on. And once they do, they’ll keeping asking that question:

And then what happened?


Tweens Rise to the Occasion

Ballroom at Tween ABC

For the last six years, a group of authors I work with have held a writing conference for teenagers (ages 13 to 19) called Teen Author Boot Camp.  It is a daylong event and often we have people ask us how we dare spend 8 hours with a bunch of crazy teenagers. Yet we have never had a problem (and we’ve had as many as 750 teens at TABC). I fact, I’ve met teens  who I consider genuine friends and fellow authors.

This year, I felt the desire to put on a writing conference just for tweens (ages 9 to 12). I had a couple of people tell me I was absolutely insane—what with all of the ADHD, bullying, lack of respect, and such. After some of the feedback, I started to worry a bit as well.

dogtagLast night we held the first ever Tween Author Boot Camp. Almost 250 kids came to a conference for nearly five hours to learn how to write better. And guess what? They sat in their chairs. They listened. They took notes. They asked a very intelligent questions, and they gave brilliant answers.

I was impressed!

The kids did just as well as the teenagers in paying attention. The authors who taught were lively, and the classes lasted only 25 minutes instead of 40. The evening went by quickly.

Granted, the “Lost and Found” was HUGE, but other than the tweens were outstanding students. With all that goes on in America and in the school system and in society, we tend to think that kids are headed on a downhill spiral. In reality, we have some amazingly intelligent young people in our society.

Lois Class at Tween ABCKudos to these parents who are raising such bright young minds. My favorite part of the evening came during teaching my class called “idea invention.” I showed the kids a picture of a man in a kayak with the darkened image of a large shark looming in the water about 20 feet away. I then asked the kids to pose a question using “what if?” The kids came up with a lot of great “what if” questions:

  • What if the shark eats the man?
  • What if the man survives the shark attack?
  • What if the shark is the man’s best friend?

But the one I loved the most, the one that I thought a New York Times best-selling author could easily write a book about, was the answer from a 10-year-old kid who said, “What if the image of the shark is really just the man’s shadow?”

Wow! Doesn’t that sound like an intriguing novel?


Writing Something New

For the past four years I have been publishing an action/adventure series  that takes place in ancient Nubia. There are currently four books in the PRINCESS KANDAKE series and right now I am working on book number five, Decisions of a Queen. It started out as a labor of love for my granddaughter when she asked me one question. “Nana, where are all the beautiful brown princesses?” My research led me to creating one story that turned into a series of five books.

I have truly enjoyed all of the research that has gone into making the stories and culture as real as possible. Along the way, I learned quite a bit about history, African culture, and the rulers of past kingdoms. There were times when I got so caught up in the research that only deadlines could tear me away from the facts and occurrences of ancient times. I was surprised by the number of things in current African American culture that have their roots in ancient times on the continent of my ancestors. But now it is time for me to move on, time for me to return to my first fictional infatuation…science fiction.

Because many of my readers are accustomed to my writing about things of long ago, I determined that it might be helpful to break them in gently to the odd and strange twists of my imagination. So, last year I published a book of short stories entitled Obscura. Each tale is designed to keep the reader thinking, to cause their imaginations to carry them beyond the end of the story.

This year I will be releasing the first book of a new series that is considered contemporary science fiction…and that is only the beginning of my foray into the odd and strange. Switching gears from the old and ancient to all things new and nearly unimagined has been tough, but oh so much fun. My imagination is totally unleashed. Keep an eye out for the strange and obscure, you’re likely to find me lurking somewhere nearby.